More Kerr: Western Conference preseason rankings
It wasn't long ago that the Eastern Conference was the laughingstock of the NBA, with the West boasting the league's top five or six teams. But a lot has happened the last two years, and it appears the NBA has established a healthy balance, showcasing powerhouses in both conferences.
Between Detroit's surprise title in 2004, Shaquille O'Neal's trade to Miami and the rise of LeBron James in Cleveland, the East has made a huge leap forward and appears ready to challenge the West for superiority. While it may not have as much depth from top to bottom, the East boasts three very serious championship contenders and a couple of dark horses.
Here's how I see the Eastern Conference – ranked one through 15 – going into training camp.
1.Miami Heat – The Heat made drastic changes, adding Antoine Walker, Jason Williams and Gary Payton. Stan Van Gundy will have to be a chemistry professor, but as long as Shaq and Dwyane Wade are healthy, Miami is the team to beat in the East.
3.Detroit Pistons – The Pistons bring everyone back – except for Larry Brown – and they're the toughest team in the NBA. The key will be how well they can adjust to Flip Saunders and his more offensive-minded philosophy.
4.Cleveland Cavaliers – LeBron will be the best player in the NBA within two years. And now he has some help in Larry Hughes and Donyell Marshall. The Cavaliers could be the most improved team in the league.
5.New Jersey Nets – Nets fans got a taste of the Richard Jefferson, Vince Carter, Jason Kidd trio in the playoffs. Now they'll see them – together and healthy – for a full season. And with Nenad Kristic and Marc Jackson on the front line, this could be a very good club.
6.Chicago Bulls – Can the Bulls follow up their fairytale season from a year ago? Yes – as long as they continue to defend as hard as they did last season.
8.New York Knicks – Larry Brown will make this team better defensively, and if Eddy Curry is healthy, they're really going to improve offensively. The Knicks are suddenly very interesting.
14.Atlanta Hawks – The Hawks should be improved. Then again, they only won 13 games last season, so how could they not improve? Joe Johnson leads a group of talented, athletic youngsters, but there's a lot of work ahead.